Few industries have been impacted by COVID-19 as severely as the travel industry. There is no downplaying the effect a global lockdown has had in what CNN Business called the “worst shock since 9/11.”
Jamaica’s budget planning agency (PIOJ) estimates that it will take two to three years for the industry to recover.
“We expect the industry will come back fully by 2023 or 2024, which will be contingent on the return of all airlift, cruise passengers and normalcy regarding vaccine availability,” PIOJ reported. “Prior to COVID, Jamaica was on track to record its 10th consecutive year of growth, with a forecast for five million visitors by the end of 2020.”
This is consistent with what tour operators are saying.
“We know that vacationers who love Jamaica are incredibly loyal to the destination and to ‘their’ resorts,” says Jackie Marks, Executive Vice President of Trade Sales and Engagement for Apple Leisure Group. “Some vacationers who cancelled initially ended up rebooking their trip for later travel dates. Overall, ALG Vacations offered a Rebook Now, Recharge Later incentive which offered customers the ability to rebook their vacation at 125% of the value. ALG Vacations also waived all brand change and cancel fees. This way customers could travel when they personally felt comfortable to travel.”
From the onset of the pandemic, Jamaica adopted an aggressive strategy to ensure the safety of its citizens and visitors alike. The Ministry of Health and Wellness worked closely with public and private sector stakeholders to create comprehensive protocols which allowed for management of COVID-19 locally. Those practices reflected the guidance of extensive consultations with international partners within and beyond the tourist industry including the CDC, the World Bank, PWC, and development finance banks.
“We feel we’ve put the right plans in place and continue to react to unexpected changes as best we can to keep our tourism industry open and welcoming to visitors,” says Director of Tourism Donovan White.
To a large extent, the major players in selling Jamaica agreed.
“Jamaica acted quickly to both closing and then reopening the destination, and with mandatory testing,” Ms. Marks said. “Jamaica was seen as having extra safety protocols, which gave the destination an advantage when customers were making destination decisions,”
But there were some missteps that may have long-lasting consequences to the industry’s rebound.
“Unfortunately, there were a lot of fast-changing protocols and policies early on that certainly did not help tourism to Jamaica,” Ms. Marks said. “ALG Vacations often didn’t have the opportunity to communicate those policies to our travel agent network before they were reversed or changed again. There was confusion regarding the implementation and then cancellation of a $40 mandatory insurance policy. Travel agents and consumers were confused by these initiatives, and they weren’t sure what the actual rules really were.
“Another miss was the establishment of the ‘resilience corridor.’ This one was especially confusing, and if travel agents are confused, they cannot sell the destination confidently. It was unclear on what would happen if a vacationer left the corridor. After years of encouraging vacationers that they should leave their resort and explore Jamaica, it was a complete turnaround to tell them they had to stay in their hotel for safety reasons.”
Jennifer Avey, Vice President of Marketing of Destination Weddings Travel Group, praised the Tourist Board’s response to the crisis.
“The Jamaica Tourist Board is proactive in reaching out to agencies, such as ours, to propose and partner on unique joint marketing efforts to inspire future travel,” Ms. Avey said. “The Jamaica Tourist Board remains one of the most accessible and helpful to consumers and agencies.
“The JTB did keep us updated with frequent emails as to protocol and procedure on the island. Agencies and tour operators then worked with hotels to try and negotiate the best policies in an effort to avoid individual and group cancellations.”
Since March 2020, the Jamaica Tourist Board has been aggressive in its efforts to keep the destination “top of mind” and inspire future travel. They utilized technology and implemented a number of creative innovations. For example, the Escape to Jamaica campaign was a big hit with audiences, featuring cooking demos from well-known chefs, fitness sessions straight from Jamaica, and weekly DJ sessions to bring the island’s musical vibes into audiences’ living rooms.
To keep travel agents engaged, the JTB held regular webinars and in November restarted their hosted FAM programming with travel agents to educate them and instill confidence that Jamaica has stringent protocols in place while maintaining the authenticity that JTB has always been known for.
The annual JAPEX trade event, organized by the Jamaica Hotel & Tourist Association in collaboration with the JTB, was held virtually for the first time. And they had record participation from travel agents, media and partners. This forum provided an opportunity to update the industry on the product as well as destination protocols.
“When COVID-19 struck last year, it caused the cancellation and postponement of both domestic and destination weddings,” Ms. Avey said. “To respond to this Destination Weddings and the Jamaica Tourist Board joined forces to host a virtual wedding for those affected. The end result was a fun event that celebrated love in a time of crisis and featured the beautiful shores of Jamaica. Additionally, we provided special offers from DestinationWeddings.com and participating resort partners to those who registered to make it easy and affordable for these couples to get married in Jamaica once they felt comfortable traveling.”
But there have been setbacks.
“Prior to the pandemic, we saw three to four generations of families and friends traveling to Jamaica for weddings, family reunions and celebration vacations, but now we are seeing only one to two generations traveling, so the number of rooms booked and the lengths of stay have decreased by between 50-60%,” said one travel agent.
So, what is an island dependent on tourism for its financial survival to do?
“Launching a branding campaign explaining why people should go to Jamaica and explaining the destination’s safety and sanitation protocols would be a good start,” Ms. Marks suggests. “Another good step would be to launch a campaign specifically for travel agents, offering commission incentives to encourage bookings to Jamaica.”
Ms. Avey noted that “requiring travelers to get a COVID-19 test prior to arrival had a negative impact on travel as we saw destinations that have not required a test grow in market share during Q3 and Q4 of 2020 and into 2021. But with the new requirement that all travelers returning to the United States now produce proof of a negative COVID-19 test, this has added another level of fear for the traveling public.
“We have noticed that other destinations have covered the cost of antigen tests for US travelers entirely (such as the Dominican Republic). We believe that if there is the opportunity to introduce hotels and/or JTB covering the cost of antigen testing for the US market it would help to put the destination on parity with others who are doing so and that would be a huge win.”
Tour operators and travel agencies worry about predatory practices on behalf of resorts desperate for bookings.
“In these challenging times, hotels and tour operators are pulling out every single strategy from their tool kit to stimulate demand.” Ms. Marks said. “Tour operators and hotels are all focusing on flexible policies, so that once customers buy a vacation, they know they can make changes relatively inexpensively. We’ve seen that all hotels have dropped pricing dramatically to simulate demand, and hotels have also created special incentives for Jamaica residents, and that has been very successful as well.”
But Ms. Avey said she has not noticed this kind of threat.
“As a large agency, we have very close relationships with our hotel partners,” she said. “Although we have seen some price-drops on hotel’s own websites, we are not seeing extensive occurrences of preferential rates or promotions offered in a consumer direct capacity.”
What can Jamaica do to build confidence in travel once more?
“We do not believe that Jamaica has lost the confidence of agents and consumers booking the destination,” Ms. Avey said. “Rather, the pandemic has affected some people’s willingness to travel. Continued diligence around safety and sharing of protocols and results will help to gain the confidence of those who have paused their plans.”
And how can the Diaspora help?
“The Diaspora are key to our marketing efforts,” says Tourism Director White. “They are our ambassadors and are critical to helping the Jamaica Tourist Board in promoting the destination and informing those overseas that Jamaica is doing everything to make the destination safe for our visitors.
“They serve to reinforce our message and reassure potential visitors about efforts by the Jamaican government to keep the destination safe by implementing strict protocols to mitigate against the transmission of COVID-19. We welcome their support in encouraging friends and those who are longing to get away, that they can do so safely in Jamaica.”
Comfort equals Confidence! Holidays, anniversaries, major milestones were all sacrificed to keep loved ones safe. Stakeholders in Jamaica’s travel industry agree that once the threat of the pandemic passes, the world will emerge from a haze of cabin fever eager to go exploring again.
“Travel connects, inspires, and fuels hope. We will value the freedom to travel more than ever before, but with different priorities and intentions. When we do get back out there, the sand will feel a bit softer. The ocean, more playful. The peaks and valleys, even more dramatic. And the smiles exchanged, all the more genuine,” says one south Florida travel agent.
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